Struggle, Support and Romance in Manhattan During the Great Depression
August 17, 2015
On a few rare occasions, I've loved watching a movie so much that I've had the urge to sit through the entire film again. Immediately. That's at least three solid hours of movie watching, and for anyone who knows me, that's a rather tough task right in a row. Penny Serenade (1941) is one of those films, as is Dear Heart (1964) and Gloria (2013). I notice I only get that impulse with feel-good flicks, heartfelt romances in particular. (Yes, I'll even sit through all the tragedy Cary Grant and Irene Dunne endure in Penny Serenade for that damn ending).
Another movie featured on that short list is 1935's Romance in Manhattan, which I first saw several years ago on TCM. The film stars Ginger Rogers and the relatively forgotten (today) Czech actor Francis Lederer. Perhaps because it was released at the beginning of a year that included, for Rogers, roles in Roberta and Top Hat, the film is sadly not as well remembered today, though it's charming, funny, and quietly moving.
Love the movie, not a huge fan of this poster. Also, why is there a rainbow?
Karel Novak (Francis Lederer) has saved for years to move from his home country of Czechoslovakia to America. When he finally reaches Ellis Island, he finds that the $50 entry requirement has jumped to $200. Lacking sufficient funds, a place to live, and a job, Karel gets deported by the authorities. Refusing to give up on his dream, Karel jumps ship, literally, and is fished out of the East River by a group of men. Terrified, he runs off, leaving his wallet behind.
With no money and no place to go, Karel wanders the streets. Resting in an alleyway, he spots a group of chorus girls huddled around a table eating doughnuts and drinking coffee. When they resume rehearsal, hungry Karel swoops in, but Sylvia Dennis (Ginger Rogers) catches him in the act. Once Sylvia learns that Karel's new to America, she lends a hand by telling him her brother may be able to get him a job.
Can you tell Karel (Francis Lederer) is super excited to be in America?
To Karel's surprise, Sylvia's brother Frank (Jimmy Butler) is only a teenager, but he agrees to share his newspaper post with Karel while he goes to school, which he's been skipping recently to help provide for him and his sister. Now all Karel needs is a place to sleep. Sylvia comes to the rescue again: she conveniently clues him in on a free spot on the roof of her apartment building, and he takes up residence there.
Sylvia teaches Karel about the realities of living in America, specifically, that the country's in the middle of the Depression and everyone is struggling. Karel doesn't mind though; he works hard, lands a job driving a cab, and helps Sylvia and Frank out when needed, and they return the favor. He also falls in love with Sylvia, though she bursts his balloon by telling him that she plans on marrying a millionaire.
Yup, Karel's still enthusiastic. But reality, in the form of Sylvia (Ginger Rogers), is there to balance him out.
Things eventually turn tough for the makeshift family. Karel's fellow cabbies go on strike, Sylvia loses her job, and she's also taken to court on the grounds that she isn't fit to provide her brother with the proper environment, especially since she's single. The court takes Frank from her, and as he packs his things, Karel races out to see if he could marry Sylvia that night; yes he can, but he would need to show his naturalization papers. Uh oh. Desperate, Karel turns to Halsey Pander (Arthur Hohl), a shady lawyer who gave Karel his card earlier. Though Halsey promises he can make Karel a citizen ASAP, he evilly turns him in for a plump reward once Karel leaves.
Karel returns to Sylvia's just as she's about to run off with Frank. Karel urges her not to, and before they know it, Frank is taken away, and the cops come for Karel too. At the police station, the officers, including Karel's pal Officer Murphy (J. Farrell MacDonald), come to realize that Halsey's pretty rotten. In several completely illegal moves, the cops fix it up so Halsey's taken in for drunk driving, resisting an officer, etc., which gives Karel time to get naturalized AND marry Sylvia so all three can live happily ever after.
This whole wedding really was a group effort.
Rogers and Lederer
1935 marked the first year RKO turned a profit since 1930, and you could argue a decent chunk of that success came courtesy star Ginger Rogers, who appeared in some of the studio's biggest hits that year, including Top Hat, Roberta, and Star of Midnight. For Romance in Manhattan, released in January 1935, the studio paired the actress with up and coming Czech actor Francis Lederer. Rogers recalled Lederer as being "genuine and very professional" - just like his character, I guess! Rogers predicted stardom for him, but RKO never knew "how to handle him or how to buy stories for him," which is too bad, because he clearly had talent. Lederer continued to find steady work in film and television through the late 1960s, though mainly in supporting roles.
Rogers always savored the opportunity to kick off her dancing shoes and showcase her dramatic chops. Conveniently, Romance in Manhattan provided her with dramatic elements surrounded by a good dose of comedy; her Sylvia is snappy and tough enough to survive the ups and downs of a chorus line during the Depression, but she also exhibits a more serious side playing protective mother to her teenage brother. The first part of the facade is definitely one Rogers played often; chorus girls seemed to be her go-to in the early 30s (see also: 1933's 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933), and her wit and sarcasm here served as a solid test run for her role two years later in Stage Door (1937). Rogers also seemed very comfortable shifting back and forth between comedy and drama, particularly in her films of the late 30s and early 40s. She could act lighthearted or silly one moment and turn plausibly serious the next with relative ease; 1939's Bachelor Mother comes to mind as an example of this, as does Primrose Path (1940) and perhaps to a lesser extent Tender Comrade (1943), though I'm sure there are many others.
Characters and Story
Besides the pure ease of watching Romance in Manhattan, which clocks in at a swift 77 minutes, what makes the picture such a moving one is the characters, performances and story. Though both leads fit standard 1930s archetypes, the feisty chorus girl and the hopeful immigrant, Rogers and Lederer imbued their roles with fighting spirits that surely resonated with Depression-era audiences. Sylvia, so hardened and tough at the beginning, fiercely struggles to hold down a job and keep custody of her brother, but at the same time, her tender side shines through her interactions with both the men in her life: she's softened considerably in her motherly scenes with Frank, and all the helpful acts she provides for Karel exhibit how kindness to strangers can profoundly affect more than one life.
Meanwhile, Karel's energetic determination and positive outlook, especially as a foreigner emigrating to America at one of the worst times possible, is quite uplifting. He reminds Sylvia, and the viewer, to look on the bright side, whatever one you can find given the situation. While Karel's optimism is continually tested - he loses all his money, gets caught in a taxi strike, resides in the country illegally, just to name a few - he refuses to give up and continues to persevere no matter what gets thrown his way. Sylvia and Karel complement each other nicely; his enthusiasm, which is simply infectious, subdues Sylvia's rather pessimistic attitude on the situation in America, while Sylvia's realistic viewpoint helps ground Karel and his expectations just a smidge.
Frank (Jimmy Butler) comes home with bad news regarding Karel's job.
I wasn't alive during the Great Depression, but Romance in Manhattan seems like quite a heartwarming tale for 1930s audiences. Both Sylvia and Karel's struggles are painfully real, and the determination and strength the two exhibit is incredibly encouraging; the fight for family, jobs, security, and the American dream are ones that any generation can identify with, but the national financial crisis in the 1930s made the stakes higher for most of the country's population.
Despite, or perhaps due to, the personal toils Sylvia and Karel tackle throughout the picture, their relationship is such a touching one, all romance aside for the moment. Think about it: Karel and Sylvia aren't married (I wonder if that inspired any censorship debate), and they literally meet randomly on the street, but Sylvia takes Karel under her wing and they support each other. Along with Frank, the three fall into a relatively normal family structure quite quickly, and the chemistry between Rogers, Lederer, and even Butler flows so naturally, though their situation is far from regular. I'm sure many 1930s audience members could relate to that bond between neighbors and friends during hard times, relying so much on people that they possibly never thought to turn to or never figured would enter their life. Karel and Sylvia's rapport is a type of male-female platonic relationship, for as long as that lasts in this movie, that I don't recall seeing much of in films of this time.
Looking and acting like a normal married couple, except they're not.
Romance in Manhattan garnered mixed reviews upon its release. While I enjoyed Lederer's charming performance - I couldn't help it, his optimism made me smile so much - I can see how some could find his constant charm irritating...if you don't like happiness, that is. Just kidding. For example, the New York Sun felt Lederer sent the film "soaring off into space," while Rogers grounded it. Other articles short-shifted the characters and the story, though the actors were generally praised for their talent in holding both up; for instance, Variety credited Rogers and Lederer with lending "considerable credibility to otherwise shallow roles," while Andre Sennwald observed in The New York Times that both leads succeeded in making "a generally engaging light entertainment out of the slightly anemic materials."
I guess I can somewhat agree with those statements. As I mentioned above, Rogers and Lederer rounded out their characters immensely, but the film really asks the audience to suspend reality regarding some of the picture's bigger issues. Though the story moved me, if I really were to stop and analyze it, I'd find holes and have a lot of questions, such as: Why did Sylvia take Karel in, no questions asked? Had she done this sort of thing before? Was it easy for an undocumented immigrant to get work, even during the Depression? How did Karel and Sylvia's makeshift household (even though he lived on the roof mostly) fly under the radar, especially considering they weren't married? Oh, and how did the police get away with the ending?! I'll chalk all those unanswered questions to the Great Depression's disruptive nature when it came to work and home life and the magic of the movies.
Cool behind the scenes shot from set.
Speaking of the police...
Romance in Manhattan turns into an all out uproarious farce the last 10-15 minutes. Though Officer Murphy told Karel early on that it was his duty to turn his "illegal" friend in, now he's obviously had a massive change of heart, or perhaps he really hates that lawyer. Why else would he and a group of officers go to so much trouble - not to mention break so many laws - just to save one man? The hilarity of the officer's highly illegal actions is compounded by the insanity of the naturalization/marriage ceremony that takes place WHILE the officers are bringing up bogus charges against Halsey to assure he doesn't mess up the proceedings. It's a head-spinning riot to watch Karel get naturalized (and being asked all these personal questions) while a Justice of the Peace performs their marriage ceremony at the same time. In fact, the couple has to wait a moment before they can be officially announced as husband and wife because the other man hasn't finalized Karel's citizenship yet! How hilarious (and unreal) is that?!
The cops saved the day!
Despite any of the improbable situations that occur in the film, Romance in Manhattan is a delightful slice of life that provided a good mix of fantasy and reality to Depression-era audiences. It's even a charming little picture to watch today, and thankfully Warner Archive has made the DVD available if you ever need a pick-me-up. Speaking of, you can grab a copy right here, and I highly recommend you do so.
Dickens, Homer. The Films of Ginger Rogers. Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1975.
Jewell, Richard B. The RKO Story. New York: Arlington House, 1985.
"Romance in Manhattan." The New York Times. 18 January 1935.